The opium wars: When Britain made war on China

Opium poppy buds in a poppy field

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In June 1840 a fleet of British warships sailed into China's Pearl River Delta and unleashed a barrage of violence, overwhelming China's weak coastal defences and bringing the country to its knees.

This was the First Opium War in which thousands were killed in the name of free trade.

Trading opium into China was a lucrative but illegal business and two Scotsmen involved in the trade, played a crucial role in the onset of war.

William Jardine, a former ship's surgeon turned private trader from Dumfriesshire, and James Matheson, a trader from Sutherland, became business partners after first meeting in a Chinese brothel.

In 1832 they formed Jardine, Matheson and Company, based in Canton, southern China (now known as Guangzhou), in the 13 Factories district - the only area of the city where foreigners could trade.

The Opium Wars

  • The Chinese banned opium several times, citing concern for public morals
  • Private British traders continued to smuggle opium into China from India
  • It was a way of balancing a trade deficit brought about by Britain's own addiction - to Indian tea
  • China's Drugs Czar Lin Tse-Hsu confiscated opium from the British traders and destroyed it
  • The British military response was severe, leading to the Nanking Treaty

They traded opium for tea, for which Britain had acquired a great thirst. By the end of the 18th Century Britain imported over six million pounds of tea per year from Canton.

At first Britain struggled to maintain the trade as China would accept only silver as payment.

Wedgewood pottery, scientific instruments and woollen goods were among the items Britain offered to trade, but all were declined.

"We possess all things and of the highest quality," Emperor Qian Long wrote in a letter to King George III. "I set no value on strange and useless objects and have no use of your country's manufactures."

Over a 50 year period Britain paid £27m in silver to the Chinese, but sold them only £9m of British goods in return.

Tea was becoming unaffordable and there was seemingly little way to make money in China.

Legally, at least.

Opium smuggling
Portraits of William Jardine and James Matheson William Jardine and James Matheson became rich from trading in opium

But British traders saw an opportunity from the conquest of Indian Bengal which had a large harvest of opium.

Opium had been banned in China even though it had been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

But in the 15th Century it was mixed with tobacco and smoked for pleasure. Soon people from all levels of Chinese society were hooked on the rituals of the opium den.

The social impact was huge and damaging, with addicts prone to sell all their possessions to feed their habit.

The sale and smoking of the drug was banned by Emperor Yongzheng in 1729, but 100 years later there was still strong demand and the British were exploiting it.

By 1836 30,000 opium chests were arriving in China each year from India. Jardine, Matheson and Company was responsible for a quarter of those.

By flouting the trade ban on opium, Britain found a way to increase its earnings from China.

"The British realised that because there was so much opium produced on the east side of India smuggling opium to China made sense," said Professor John Carroll of the University of Hong Kong.

Find out more

  • Addicted to Pleasure reveals the controversial past of sugar, opium, alcohol, and tobacco
  • In Episode 2 Hollywood actor Brian Cox investigates the impact of opium on our lives
  • Broadcast on BBC One Scotland at 21:00 on Monday 3 December

And Canton's coastal location made smuggling easy for the British:

"They would transfer the goods to smaller boats that could make it up the coast much more easily. There was always someone there to help them bring in the drugs.

"From an economic perspective this all made perfect sense."

Siege and revenge

But British law-breaking had not gone unnoticed and in 1839 Emperor Daoguang declared a war on drugs. A series of raids were ordered on the Western traders.

The traders in the 13 Factories warehouses were locked in by the Chinese army and forced to surrender.

Goods with a value of £2 million were seized, including 42,000 opium pipes and 20,000 chests of opium.

Incensed by the seizures, William Jardine left Canton for London, where he lobbied the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, to strike back at China.

With opium responsible for a significant part of British India's tax revenue, it didn't take long for the government to send in the navy.

In June 1840 the British fleet of 16 warships and 27 transports carrying 4,000 men arrived in the Pearl River Delta, near Humen.

Among them was the Nemesis, a new iron warship armed with a deadly weapon - the Congreve rocket launcher, able to fire exploding rockets up to a distance of two miles.

The Chinese were prepared, but their antiquated defences were no match for the British. Their static canons and armada of war junks were destroyed in just five and a half hours.

Over the next two years the British navy travelled up the coast towards Shanghai. Chinese troops, many of whom were addicted to opium, were overwhelmed at every stage.

The British bombardments resulted in a considerable loss of life - between 20,000 and 25,000 Chinese were killed. Britain lost just 69 men.


The Chinese Empire was shattered. In August 1842 aboard HMS Cornwallis, near the town of Nanking, the Chinese signed what became known as the "unequal treaty".

They agreed to open five ports to foreign trade and pay 21m silver dollars to the British government, as compensation for loss of opium earnings and the cost of war.

For the British the highlight of the deal was the acquisition of Hong Kong Island, which would be used as a hub to increase trade in opium with China.

The Opium Wars have been consigned to history books in Britain, but that is not the case in China, according to Dr Zheng Yangwen, of the University of Manchester. She says students there are taught about the wars from an early age.

"Text books from elementary school, to middle school to high school, to university highlight the wrong doings of the so-called imperialists.

"We have become part of what they call the Patriotic Education Programme, to educate Chinese youths like me so that we remember what you have done to us".

Actor Brian Cox explores the impact of opium on our lives in Addicted to Pleasure on Monday 3 December at 21:00 on BBC One Scotland. The programme will also be available via BBC iPlayer at the above link.

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